A Streaming Sendoff
For Dan Grumley, nothing beats being there. Yet when his father died four years ago, he felt it unfair to ask his children to skip their high-school final exams and fly 500 miles to Los Angeles to attend the funeral services. But the elder Grumley’s death gave birth to a business idea that his son believes will console far-flung mourners: live funeral webcasts.
Far from macabre, the post-mortem medium is in great demand, says Grumley, president and chief executive of Event by Wire. “When we first went into the death-care industry, people thought we were crazy,” he recalls, “but 100 percent of the time, there’s someone who wants to be there, but can’t.”
Often confused with web conferencing, webcasting connects one person or event to many people, with audio and video feeds flowing in only one direction. Web conferencing allows many people to interact with each other. How many webcasters are out there is anyone’s guess, says Frost & Sullivan Principal Analyst Dan Rayburn. But indicators, such as the growth of content delivery networks (CDNs) or back-haul operators such as Limelight Networks and Akamai Technologies, are strong. CDNs provide the back-end servers to stream web video. Collectively, CDNs are expected to generate more than $1.4 billion in 2012, from about $400 million in 2008, says Rayburn.
A 20-year-old technology, webcasting has found new life elsewhere as well. And unlike web conferencing, webcasting is typically done beyond the boardroom. Thousands of corporate shareholder meetings, weddings, high school football games and even automobile showings are streamed daily.
Why now? It’s a timely combination of tightening travel budgets, the introduction of a slew of new user-friendly high-definition video cameras and better content delivery tools.
Event by Wire also does a wide variety of webcasts for happy occasions, such as the recent December broadcast of Grumley’s son Travis graduating from Army Advanced Infantry Training at Fort Benning, Ga. But with more than 100 funeral homes leasing its equipment and services, Grumley says funerals now make up 90 percent of the Half Moon Bay, Calif., company’s business.
Funeral homes tend to be tradition-bound, but many recognize the need to go high-tech. “Depending on your faith’s tradition, there are usually three things associated with a funeral: a viewing, a ceremony and an interment,” explains Tom Rocha, vice president and director of operations and customer support at Event by Wire. “Many people, even if they’re living in the same city, can’t attend all three. Now they can, if only virtually.”
To get started, new customers receive a system that includes an HP notebook preloaded with Event by Wire’s proprietary webcasting software, a Canon High-Def camera, a Sennheiser microphone system, a Tripp Lite firewire and a website link carrying the client’s logo. The cost is about $4,000 for the system, plus a monthly service fee. Once in hand, the client can begin live webcasting quickly.
Rocha attributes some of Event by Wire’s success to its distribution agreement with CDW. Previously, Rocha’s team would need to source each of the products above, configure the notebook, load the software and adjust the camera settings. Now CDW handles all those tasks and centrally images and configures the equipment, which it then sends directly to Event by Wire’s clients. CDW also places asset tags on each piece of equipment for better tracking and ships the package with Event by Wire’s marketing materials included.
“Now, I’m out of the computer imaging business and out of the shipping business,” says Rocha. “We don’t want to be a shipping company. We want to be the broadcaster for funeral homes and businesses, and CDW has allowed us that luxury.”
Whether you do it yourself or hire an outside agency, basic webcasting has become fairly easy with the right tools. Here are the essentials for any project:
Digital Video Camera: Models vary widely, from basic notebook-mounted webcams, such as Macally’s USB 2.0 Video Web Camera, to portable cameras, such as JVC’s Everio GZ-MG330H, which offers a Konica Minolta lens, 35x optical zoom and a 30 gigabyte hard drive. High-end units, such as Sony’s high-resolution Broadband Remote Camera, can be mounted on desktops or ceilings.
Encoder and streaming media software: Products include RealNetworks’s RealVideo 10, Microsoft’s Windows Media Encoder, Adobe’s Flash video and others.
On a sunny March afternoon with surfers paddling in the Pacific behind him, Daniel Radell delivered his wife’s eulogy on the sands of Manhattan Beach, Calif. His poignant tribute to Barbara Flowers Radell was witnessed by scores of mourners gathered before him — and hundreds online.
“I just watched the memorial service and thought it was one of the most beautiful services I have ever seen,” wrote one mourner, who watched from Ohio. Webcast live by Event by Wire, the service remains on the website of White & Day Mortuaries, which handled the funeral services.
“We’re trying to have differentiating services,” says John Kirk, vice president and CEO of White & Day, Torrance, Calif., which operates six funeral homes in Southern California. Event by Wire has facilitated about 50 webcasts — some of them live, others taped and later uploaded — for White & Day in the past 18 months, says Kirk.
Event by Wire then sends out a token-embedded e-mail to as many as 6,000 guests, inviting them to log on. Once they do, the data is streamed at 100 kilobits per second. That’s enough to provide 16 frames per second of video and CD-quality sound. While the video is not as smooth as television’s 30fps, the images are generally seamless.
“We do webcasts four or five times a month with Event by Wire,” says Keith Downey, funeral director at Holloway Funeral Home, Salisbury, Md. “It comes down to the fact that we’ve become a very transient society. Sometimes it doesn’t suit people financially or professionally to make the trip.”
But as Tom Rocha, Event by Wire’s vice president, points out, “The funeral home can serve the people who are able to attend the service in person. What we’ve done is widen the circle to serve the people who want to be there, but can’t.”